Over two dozen local people showed up at The Potter’s House on the evening of Wednesday, September 27th to get connected with DC campaigns for prison reform. The event included a letter-writing campaign for incarcerated elders. Letter-writing events are an opportunity to learn about people on the wrong side of the Justice System, and to make an effort to connect with them.
The event was held by DC Stampede and the Aging People in Prison Human Rights Campaign (APP-HRC). Tyronne Morton, 68, was the acting spokesperson at the event. “We’ve come here to talk to Joe Public about the problem of mass incarceration, and especially about all the older people that are incarcerated at this very moment. That’s got 20, 30, 40, 50 years in and they should be released,” he said.
Morton, whose wife is an anthropologist, took this view on his own time in jail. After gaining his freedom, he has made an effort to “help the people who are still in” by touring universities to talk about the experience of incarceration and advocate for prison reform.
Before the letter-writing began four people from APP-HRC spoke to the 25-30 attendants. Tomiko Shine, 40, introduced the event. She held up a black poster board with Charlotte Malerich, 34, an organizer with DC Stampede. The poster board displayed the pictures and stories of ten people who are experiencing, or already experienced, old age behind bars.
Shine highlighted certain stories, such as that of Glenn Ford, who was exonerated of his crime after serving 30 years in jail, but died a year later at 65.
She first introduced Morton who spoke on his experiences behind bars and his activism for prison reform. “Even the people who are silent and standing on the side, they’re participating,” he said, calling for people to get involved.
Avantika Shenoy, 21, spoke second. She came with an AU community service fraternity to advertise an APP-HRC organized teach-in this Sunday, October 1, about what it is like to be a person of color. The teach-in is a response to a recent incident where a Confederate flag and some cotton was posted on a campus billboard. “Cotton Fields To Prison Cells” is the name on their Facebook event.
The final speaker was 62-year-old Monica Wimberly. She spoke of her son who died in jail. She said it was a situation where her son was with the wrong crowd, somebody shot two people, and he took the fall as the only juvenile in the group. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to two life sentences.
“It’s important that everybody knows what they’re doing to our children,” said Wimberly. She feels that the justice system is trapping a lot of young people who are uneducated on their rights. “Nobody is taught cursive writing anymore, these kids just have papers put in front of them and they don’t know what they’re signing”, she said. I would later learn that she organizes a program that teaches cursive handwriting to children.
The letter-writing events are held every other month on the last Wednesday. The next gathering will be on November 29. DC Stampede organizes these events with different groups. Malerich said, “DC Stampede has been holding letter writing nights, for, I think two years, two and a half years.” This is the third time they have partnered with APP-HRC for this event. They also write letters to political prisoners.
Wimberly explained her reason for helping to organize this letter-writing event. “I just feel like writing letters will bring an awareness to these people who are still alive,” she said. The participants were given several options of people to write to. There were the surviving people from the black posterboard, Eraina Pretty, and a paper with a photo of a man whose face is swollen and his eye is red with blood. The man is Herman Bell.
Herman Bell, a Black Panther who has been incarcerated for four decades, was assaulted by prison guards on September 6. He was charged with violent conduct and as a result his visitation privileges have been revoked and he has been moved into higher security. The group wrote to Commissioner Anthony Annucci, the head of New York State Department of Corrections, to request that Bell be treated with leniency, and that the officers who assaulted him be fired.
One letter-writer I spoke to, Katy Koenig, 25, wrote to three people, including Bell. “I chose to come here because I guess this is a huge issue right, we’re basically enslaving a large portion of our population,” she said. “We’re creating a system where even once you get out of jail you’re still like, because you’re labeled a criminal, you’re not going to get a job you’re just going to end up back in jail.”
In addition to Bell, Koenig wrote to Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania about a group of 9 Black Panthers, known as the Move 9, who have consistently been denied parole. She also wrote to Eraina Pretty, a woman whose boyfriend, and sexual assaulter, shot somebody during a robbery she took part in. She went to jail as an 18-year-old who had not killed anybody after being convinced to take a life-sentence in a plea deal.
Charlotte Malerich has been doing this for over two years. She told me that she keeps in touch with three people serving time in Maryland and Virginia whom she considers friends. “When you write to a prisoner, it’s a connection from you to them, it reminds them there are people on the outside, life is going on on the outside, there is a world that they can return to and a society that’s waiting to welcome them back.”
If you want more independent reporting like this, please support Rhys and TATM with a donation– Every $1 helps us grow!